Dear Hugo...

Swiss cycling's age of plenty, and the greatest race that never was...

08 June 2022

Fausto Coppi’s 1949 Giro-Tour double had been the apogee of his career and, it could be argued, of cycling. At the Giro he’d redefined the sport entirely. The Cuneo-Pinerolo stage, over five Alpine climbs, had been the hardest days’ racing ever conceived. Fausto had defied convention (and apparently logic) in attacking 192 kilometres from the finish, and they’d never seen him again. At the Tour he’d trailed maillot jaune Fiorenzo Magni by 32 minutes headed into the Pyrenees. In overhauling Magni – and everyone else – he produced a stupendous performance. He was untouchable in the mountains, and in the time trial to Nancy he put seven minutes into his nemesis Gino Bartali. Now the two of them, Italy’s standard bearers, would be hammer and tongs once more at the 1950 Giro. Coppi made ready by winning both Paris-Roubaix and Flèche Wallonne, while Bartali was unstoppable at Milan-Sanremo. Seconds out…

The winner of the 1934 Giro, Learco Guerra, was the owner of a small bike factory. He had no money to speak of, but he very well understood the value of the Giro as a shop window. As such, he cobbled together a low-cost team to ride in support of the Frenchman Marcel Dupont. He’d finished fifth at the previous year’s Tour, albeit 40 minutes behind Coppi. Nobody really expected Dupont to challenge, and in the event he was hopeless. However one of his Swiss gregari broke ranks, and simultaneously altered the trajectory of world cycling.

Zurich’s Hugo Koblet had been turning heads as a six-day racer and pursuiter, but his road career – such as it was – had been a stop-start affair. He was gifted (there were stage wins at Romandie and the Tour de Suisse to prove it), and he was supremely elegant on the bike. However he was 25, he’d never ridden a grand tour, and considered wisdom had it he lacked the gumption to compete with the very best. Koblet was tall, blonde and achingly beautiful, the very antithesis of the gnarly stage racing archetype. He’d offered his services to Bartali’s eponymous team, but Gino hadn’t fancied him. He’d missed a lot of racing through injury, and there remained a suspicion that he didn’t really know how to suffer. He seemed always to be riding within himself, there was a slightly ethereal quality about him. Bartali reckoned he was just too other, and besides he didn’t market his bikes in Switzerland. As he saw it there were any number of Italians as good if not better, so there was nothing to be gained by engaging him. Was there?

Upset by the rebuttal, Koblet had set about proving him wrong the week before the Giro. He’d been the strongest at Romandie, and but for a last-day mechanical would likely have won it. It suggested he was ready, finally, to apply himself to the road, but in the final analysis Romandie was Romandie and the Giro, categorically, was not.

Stage six of the corsa rosa comprised 220 northerly kilometres from Turin to Locarno, across the Swiss border. The breaks came and went as normal, and as normal the GC deadbeats enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame. Then, however, Koblet jumped clear as they approached Lake Maggiore. They pretty much let him go, but then he used his time trialling skills to solo to the stage win. They hadn’t been expecting that, and they certainly didn’t expect him to attempt a repeat two days later on the stage to Vicenza. The difference was that this time they bust a gut to bring him back, but try as they might they just couldn’t. When the dust settled he, the gentle giant from the baker’s shop in Zurich, pulled on the maglia rosa of the Giro d’Italia…

Brilliant or otherwise, Koblet was riding his first grand tour. Inevitably he’d capsize in the mountains, and the usual (Italian) suspects would then contest the Giro. The winner, in this the Jubilee Year, would have an audience with The Pope, and of course the winner would be either Fausto Coppi or Gino “The Pious” Bartali. That, at least, was the theory, but in the event they were deluding themselves. Coppi crashed out and, try as they might, Bartali’s coalition of the willing failed to bring dashing young Koblet to heel. As Italian sports fans contemplated their navels he floated over the Dolomites, and positively cantered down to the Vatican. He became the first Swiss to win a grand tour, and the first foreigner to win the Giro. For the Italians it was the worst possible outcome, but it was undeniable that something seismic had happened. From nothing, the Swiss had synthesised an extremely talented group of riders, and he was the best of them. This Koblet was the real deal and it was clear that he – and not 35-year-old Bartali – would be Coppi’s main rival moving forward.

Koblet was a gentle, generous soul, and he freely admitted that Coppi was his inspiration and his idol. When he followed up by dominating the Tour de Suisse, it was natural that comparisons would be drawn. Both were softly spoken, and they were each possessed of an innate decency. The Swiss weren’t used to champion sportsmen, and nobody had ever seen a rider like Koblet before. Suddenly it was they – not the Italians or the French – who were in the ascendency, and as a population they abandoned themselves to Koblet’s brilliance and film star good looks.

Just then, the magazine industry was enjoying unprecedented growth. Ordinary Europeans were developing a taste for the private lives and loves of sportsmen, and no sportsmen were more newsworthy (or more glamorous) than Coppi and Koblet. For Planet Cycling, this new rivalry was a godsend. When it became clear they’d convene at the 1951 Tour, millions of sports fans held their collective breath.

Five days in advance of the Tour, Fausto Coppi’s Bianchi signed on at his home race. For all sorts of reasons he’d never won the Tour of Piedmont, and he resolved to win it before heading across the Alps. As the peloton galloped towards the finish in Turin, his brother Serse caught his wheel in a tramline. He fell and banged his head, but climbed back on and finished the race. Back at the hotel, however, he began to complain of a headache. His death later that evening in hospital would have a profound effect on Coppi for the rest of his life. Serse had been the Campionissimo’s rock, his brain and his anchor, and the Fausto Coppi who departed Metz was in pieces.

On a flat stage to Agen, Koblet produced his masterpiece, and arguably the most singular exploit in the history of the race. Kitted out in the luscious strawberry red of the Swiss national team, he attacked 138 rolling kilometres from the finish. It appeared to make no sense whatsoever, but somehow held off a ferocious group of Italians, Dutchmen, Frenchmen and Belgians to win alone. It almost defied belief, but redefining cycling’s rules of engagement was becoming something of a habit. While the mortals of the peloton turned themselves inside out in the furnace which was the French summer, he was the very embodiment of cool. Cycling was the hardest of all sports, and yet somehow he contrived to make it appear… well… easy... His morale on the floor, Coppi collapsed on a transition stage to Montpellier. Thereafter, the race became something of a procession. Though genuinely upset for Fausto, Hugo helped himself to five stage wins and, by 22 minutes, the maillot jaune.

A cycling Zeus then or, if you will, an Adonis. In advance of the post-stage interviews he’d wash his face and – astonishing this - apply actual eau de Cologne. He’d then studiously comb his hair because, he said, it was simple good manners to look smart. All of France was enraptured and (who’d have thought it?) European womanhood began to develop a serious interest in bike racing. A French journalist was moved to refer to him as the “Pédaleur de Charme”. It took root in the cycling vernacular and there, 70 years on, it remains.

Koblet’s genius as a cyclist was unequivocal and that, allied to Coppi’s malaise, had rendered his victory almost perfunctory. The race of the century hadn’t materialised, and nor would it the following year. Having ridden himself into form at the Giro, Koblet capsized during a Tour de Suisse time trial he seemed certain to win. Legend has it that the bronchitis he contracted was exacerbated by an injection administered by the Swiss Cycling Federation’s quack, and most concur he was never the same rider again. Regardless, he failed to recover in time for the Tour, and in his absence Coppi once more completed the double. Fausto was majestic, but as a sporting contest it was mind-numbingly dull.

Koblet was famously gluttonous, and by 1953 it was beginning to catch up with him. He arrived at the Giro three kilograms heavier, and Coppi was 33 now. In truth they were both past their best, though they remained a class above the others. As a foreigner at the Giro, Koblet faced an elemental problem. Coppi’s pockets were deep enough for the entire peloton, so in a material sense he was one Swiss against the Italian’s sixty. Coppi couldn’t distance him though, and he retained the maglia rosa headed into the final Dolomite stage. In the circumstances that was genuinely heroic, but the whole thing would unravel on the Passo Stelvio…

In advance of the stage, the two of them agreed a truce. They would ride the climb together and Koblet, much the better sprinter, would gift Coppi the stage win in exchange for a second Giro. For his part, Fausto would greet his lover, Giulia Occhini, with the stage winners’ bouquet at the stage finish. In the event, though, Coppi’s racing instinct was just too powerful. He famously attacked on the Stelvio, and a shellshocked Koblet lost his wheel. He then punctured on the descent, and the Giro was lost. The treachery – as distinct to the losing itself - broke his heart. Contracted to ride a lucrative track meet with Coppi, he refused point-blank. When asked why he replied, somewhat obliquely, “Ask Fausto.”

The episode is illustrative, because it underscored the essential difference between them. Coppi was a good man, but also the professional cycling exemplar. Hugo, extravagantly gifted or otherwise, was an amateur by comparison. He raced a bike because he was good at it and he liked it, but the winning wasn’t existential for him. He could never have conceived of behaving like that, because as he saw it he and Fausto were friends. It was, after all, only a bike race, and no bike race was worth that.

The following year he effectively gave the Giro away. He allowed Carlo Clerici, his friend and domestique, to take half an hour in the break. Clerici thus traded his red Swiss jersey for the maglia rosa, and he kept it all the way to Milan. For Coppi and Bartali that represented a heresy, but then Coppi and Bartali weren’t Hugo Koblet. For him it was the most natural thing in the world, and he was genuinely happy for Clerici to win.

The life of a cyclist was supposed to be ascetic, but he travelled here, there and jet-set everywhere. He married a catwalk model from a bourgeois family, flirted with a Hollywood career and drove a giant American Studebaker around stolid, puritanical Zurich. He enjoyed John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, indulged himself at Davos and generally embraced his celebrity. Unusually for a Swiss, his profligacy with money was legion. He kept it in a suitcase in preference to opening a bank account (at least until it was all stolen in a burglary), and he was utterly incapable of saying no. Some maintain that he had the sexually transmitted disease to prove it, picked it up during a high profile trip to Acapulco. That may or may not be true, but in the final analysis his prediction for excess caught up with him. The race of the century never quite happened, he never again reached Paris, and to all intents and purposes he was washed up by his thirtieth birthday.

By the time he retired, the money had all been spent. He moved to Caracas ostensibly to work in Venezuela’s burgeoning motor industry, but the evidence suggests he was in dire financial straits. When he came home two years later he was penniless, and more or less broken. The “Pédaleur de Charme” was bald, overweight and clinically depressed. Crippled by debt, childless and abandoned by his wife, he committed suicide aged 39. Like that of his idol Coppi, his life was truncated in tragic circumstances, and the two of them remain the most enigmatic champions in cycling history.

In Switzerland they don’t generally lionise their sportsmen in the way the French do, and they certainly don't imbue their cyclists with celestial qualities as do the Italians. The Swiss are famed for their sobriety, and of course sport is just sport. Hugo Koblet is largely forgotten even in his homeland, but his greatness (sporting and human) remains a matter of fact. Fleetingly or otherwise, he was every bit the equal of Fausto Coppi, and Coppi was the greatest road cyclist who ever lived.

People are forever evoking cycling’s golden age, and of course it’s entirely subjective. It’s irrefutable, however, that for ten years immediately after WWII, Europe was absolutely smitten with the sport. This was cycling age of plenty, and nowhere more so than in Switzerland. Theirs truly was a golden generation, and in Hugo Koblet they possessed a thoroughgoing superstar.

What a bike rider he was, and what a time to be alive…

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